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Henri Lloyd's partnership with Land Rover BAR: We speak to company Chairman Paul Strzelecki

by Mark Jardine 6 Jun 2017 12:41 BST 6 June 2017
Paul Strzelecki and Ben Ainslie in the Lymington Henri Lloyd store after London 2012 © Henri Lloyd

Paul Strzelecki has always taken a very personal approach to sailing sponsorships, and this has led to the 21 year partnership Henri Lloyd have had with Sir Ben Ainslie, most recently with the Land Rover BAR America's Cup campaign. We spoke to Paul to find out more about how this relationship developed and what it means to Henri Lloyd and to him personally.

Mark Jardine: When did you first meet Ben?

Paul Strzelecki: To be honest I can't remember exactly! What I do remember is talking to Jim Saltonstall, who was his Youth Team coach. We'd sponsored Stuart Childerley for a couple of Olympic campaigns in 1988 and 1992 where he finished fourth both times. I went to the events and I was absolutely gutted; I found it so upsetting to watch him go through all of that and finish just outside the medals both times and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with this personal sponsorship. Jim said, "I've got this young lad who I think would be perfect for you".

When I first met Ben he was around 17, certainly before the Olympics in Atlanta, and I remember he was very shy and incredibly polite. There was a connection - apart from the one through Jim who's judgement I trusted implicitly - because Ben's family came from Cheshire originally where Roddy Ainslie had lived in Macclesfield and I was from that area; there was quite a nice connection even though he'd lived for many years in the South West.

I met Ben's dad not long afterwards and got on very well with him - it's difficult not to - and from day one Ben was always very good with us, always wanting to give something back. We've sponsored many sailors and not everyone behaves in that manner. He was always engaging, even though was quite shy, but he'd always make an effort to talk and really listen and engage, just like he does now.

Mark: Apart from going the extra mile with you on the sponsorship, what impressed you most about him?

Paul: His focus. I have lots of pictures he's sent us over the years and there's one from Athens where the look in his eyes is a bit scary. When I've spent time with him he sometimes goes into his zone. He's never rude, but you can see him going into his zone and you know for a period of time you just have to let him be in it. I wish I had just 10% of his focus, because when he focuses on something no-one will distract him.

Mark: Do you think he's a different character on and off the water?

Paul: I wouldn't say completely as I don't think you can be completely different. There are obviously some significant differences, but I don't see how you can be completely different because his character is is what it is. Everyone talks about how aggressive he can be on the water, but if you listen to him during the America's Cup he's usually just chatting away with Giles, not quite having afternoon tea but not shouting. I don't think his focus is much different off the water than on the water; he's always thinking about what he wants to achieve and rarely gets deflected.

Mark: You've worked with him since Atlanta 1996 when he won his silver medal in the Laser class, through all of his gold medals, and on to when he started up BAR, which has since become Land Rover BAR. Was it just a natural progression to become involved in his America's Cup campaign?

Paul: Yes it was, there was no doubt in my mind. We obviously had to develop some new product categories that we had no experience of, but he trusted us to develop them. I'm sure there were members of the team who thought "Henri Lloyd haven't done anything like this," and they were quite right, we hadn't, but my team here, led by Craig (Prest) were fantastic working in particular with Nick Hutton and Catflap (Matt Cornwell).

Ben and I had talked over the years about his desire to win the America's Cup, and it's something I've always dreamt about, and to be part of it - no matter how small - is also one of the reasons we wanted to be involved.

Mark: From this partnership a new Henri Lloyd dinghy range has been developed, really aimed at the high performance, aerobic sailor. What innovations has the partnership led to in this new range?

Paul: The main one is the Ventiprene wetsuit that we've developed. These wetsuits are breathable and we've built in reinforcement as well. It's taken us into an area we've not been active in at all and it's been exciting for us to be able to do that.

Mark: Did you find working with the Land Rover BAR team, who have been developing the boat and technology so quickly, that it accelerated the programme of clothing development?

Paul: Yes, it definitely did. Working on any project, as opposed to just developing in a 6 month, 12 month, 2 year cycle, when you work with a team - which we've done previously in Formula 1 and in the America's Cup with ORACLE TEAM USA - it gives you a real focus. It's no good saying it has slipped by a month because they have schedules and it sharpens up the people working within the company.

Sometimes if you have too much time you don't really push forwards and in my experience it's during these projects that real innovations can come. During the America's Cup in Valencia we developed a lot of lighter weight kit and fast dry clothing and that was very good. Now doing it with Ben and Land Rover BAR it's the same and has really helped us develop more quickly than we otherwise would have. The instant feedback, sometimes within a day, speeds things up considerably.

Mark: You've worked with Spinlock on the safety equipment side of the clothing. How has it worked when you've had to collaborate on the clothing with them?

Paul: When we started out on this there was the terrible accident with Andrew Simpson and safety was much more on people's minds than I've ever known before. We realised that while we had done safety products in the past, we hadn't done them to the level that some other brands had. We've known the Spinlock team for years, I like the way they've developed their new product lines, and one of their team (Miles) used to work with one of our designers. We thought, knowing the way Ben likes everything to be British, it was a logical partnership. We get on well with them, we trust them, we know when we talk to them that it'll be held in confidence and, to be honest it wasn't difficult at all.

Mark: What have you thought of the 35th America's Cup racing so far?

Paul: It's the most nerve-wracking thing I've watched! It's exciting, but as a friend of Ben's, a business partner and a sponsor, it is nail-biting. To see all the teams beating each other in such a fast and exciting way I think is good for the sport. While I think it is changing the top end of the sport, sailing is also a pastime and most sailors don't want to be flying across the Solent on foils. As many people say to me, "I just like to pootle about," and I always reply, "That's the best thing to do!". Therefore I don't think it's the game-changer for getting more people into sailing, but I do think it's great entertainment.

Mark: Your partnership with Ben has already been 21 years, and an America's Cup campaign is never about a single cycle, and barring a miracle it takes two or three cycles to win the America's Cup. Will you be working with BAR in the long-term?

Paul: We hope so and we're talking about doing that. We haven't finalised anything but we are talking and we'd love to continue.

Mark: You take a very personal view of your sailing sponsorships, all the way back to Stuart Childerley where you followed his trials and tribulations in the Olympics. Do you believe that personal relationship with your sponsored sailors is very important.

Paul: It is for me, and I hope they think so as well. I think the personal interest is important on both sides. We started working with Phil Sharp in the Class 40s about 18 months ago and that's another example where the personal relationship has grown. I think both sides get more out of it when a personal relationship is built; we end up giving more and they end up giving more. It doesn't always work, but it often does and helps us develop some great long-term relationships.

Mark: Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us Paul.

Paul: Pleasure to speak to you Mark, as always.